When I was a little boy, my favourite TV show was Trumpton. I enjoyed, of course, the famous roll-call of Pugh, Pugh, Barney McGrew, Cuthbert, Dibble, Grubb. But the thing that really grabbed me was the fire-engine ladder. “Elevate!” said the story-teller, whenever it rose to retrieve a cat from a tricky roof. “Descend!” he’d say again, every time it came back down. I was always glad when it did: it’s safer for everyone to have both feet on the ground.
I think of Trumpton as the Church celebrates Christ’s Ascension into heaven, forty days after Easter. The bible paints him shooting skywards in a hazy whoosh of billowing clouds. As things have turned out, it was a poor choice of image. From where we sit, it looks like a dodgy science-fiction movie, making it all too easy for the truth of Christ’s Ascension to be dismissed as the foolish talk of fearful folk who can’t cope with their mortality. Soviet leader Nikita Khruschev is said to have remarked that Yuri Gagarin, the first human in space, ‘didn’t see any God there.’ He’d been as high as you can go, and had found nothing.
Khruschev had missed the point. The purpose of the Ascension story is not to promote the idea of a divine territory so many thousand feet above sea level. Rather, it reminds us that the truth of God is revealed in the historic person of Jesus, but insists that Jesus is not limited by history or geography. Just because we weren’t in Galilee twenty-one centuries ago does not limit our ability to know Jesus Christ, or his ability to know us. In his Ascension, he swaps the local for the universal. He who descended to the shop-floor of the human condition is now elevated to a vantage point from where he can see, know, and love us all. He who has battled and been victorious takes his place with the Father at the very heart of reality: and he shares his throne with his creation. We are elevated with him. He budges up, and makes room for us. Our horizon shifts as we re-focus on him; our agenda is altered as we hear his words.
Of course it pays to have both feet on the ground. But now we need to have our head in the clouds as well.